A feeding frenzy has broken out among conspiracy theorists and pro-Assad circles in the wake of the release of a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated August 2012. This was obtained by conservative lobby group, Judicial Watch, seeking ammunition for their campaign against Hilary Clinton in connection with the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. They have made little use of it but others have pounced on it with great enthusiasm.
The Washington Blog ran with the headline “Newly-Declassified U.S. Government Documents: The West Supported the Creation of ISIS” while regular Stop the War (UK) contributor Matt Carr flourished the banner “How the US-helped ISIS Carve its caliphate in Blood across Iraq and Syria” and Guardian journalist Seumas Milne joined in with “Now the Truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” Most recently the normally level-headed US left journal Jacobin has picked up on the theme.
Before looking at what this text actually says it is worth noting some of its features: it is an “Information Report” with a circulation list of some 17 other agencies, including various military departments, the State Department, the FBI, and Homeland Security; corresponding to this wide circulation it has only a mid-grade “Secret” security classification. (This probably explains why large parts of it read like something from Iraq for Dummies.) So it’s unlikely to be a document which contains any major policy secrets.
Its principal concern is with the security of Iraq, but it deals with Syria in the context of the interconnection of the two. It is written in a rather staccato style and contains grammatical and other errors that suggest it was hastily put together. It has also been extensively redacted leaving a rather fragmented text. As such it needs a considerable amount of interpretation and is open to a considerable amount of hyperbole.
The conspiracy construction of the text
The conspiracy reading of the document rests on an alleged “smoking gun” assembled from two paragraphs:
7B … On the other hand opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor) adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces in addition to neighboring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. (my emphasis)
8C. If the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor) and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran.) (my emphasis)
By linking the “Western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey” of the first paragraph to the “supporting powers to the opposition” of the second, The Washington Blog feels able to conclude that “the declassified DIA documents show that the U.S. and the West supported ISIS at its inception … as a way to isolate the Syrian government”. Milne asserts that it “uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a ‘Salafist principality’ in Eastern Syria and an al-Qaida controlled Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.”
There are three obvious problems with this reading. First, the United States is not mentioned in these passages – and as Juan Cole has pointed out, a document written by one US agency for the benefit of other agencies is hardly likely to lump the US government into a catch-all category like “western powers”. Second, Section 8, of which the second paragraph is a part, is a list of warnings about threats to Iraqi security. It isn’t advocating the creation of a “Salafist principality” (whatever that might be) but warning of it as a potential factor in the “deterioration of the situation” with “dire consequences on the Iraq situation.” Given that the document’s principal concern is Iraqi security it could not logically be endorsing anything cast in such terms.
What it does seems to be doing is suggesting that other actors including some unnamed “western powers” might sponsor this “Salafist principality” for the reasons suggested.
The third problem with the Conspiratorial reading is that it assumes that this “Salafist principality” is to be identified with ISIS. But one of the few virtues of this document is that it differentiates between different currents in the Syrian opposition – The Syrian Free Army (sic), the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). So this warning relates to a Salafist not an al-Qaeda project (al Qaeda’s possible strategies are dealt with separately in the subsequent paragraph: “ISI could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”) And of course no such “Salafist principality” ever came to pass.
So what are we left with? A document that warns about some of the dangers that it foresees for Iraqi security resulting from the policies of Turkey, the Gulf states and unnamed western powers. To clarify what is going on here we need to do a little more reading –both of the document and about the context in which it was written.
After its warning of the threat of a “Salafist principality” the document continues:
This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre of the temporary government.
When this was being written in 2012 there was a vigorous debate going on among international supporters of the Syrian opposition over what action they should take to contain the Syrian regime’s attacks on civilian populations. Turkey championed the idea of a No Fly or Safe Zone, France and Britain indicated they might support such a proposal (probably as a threat to pressure Asad), the US State Department was equivocating, and the US military was opposed. The main proposal under discussion was a limited protected zone adjacent to the Turkish border
There you have your alliance of “western powers” (France and Britain) with Turkey and the Gulf states. And there you have the connection to Northeast Syria – a protected zone very similar to the area that Turkey continues to propose.
Why such a development should be described in the strange language of “a Salafist principality” I don’t know for sure. Probably it reflected the unease among the US military (remember this is written by a Defence Department agency) about the implications of such an opposition controlled area for the security of Iraq, which in 2012 was in an acute crisis in the wake of the US troop withdrawal, with the Maliki government threatened by internal discord and a resurgent Islamic State in Iraq (making utterly absurd the notion that the US would be supporting ISIS-to-be in this period.)
This is the only consistent reading of the DIA report, explaining its preoccupation with the Syrian-Iraq border (even the simple capture of a border post by the FSA is described as “a serious and dangerous threat”, given that view, the prospect of a “Salafist principality” must have been seen as the dawn of the apocalypse.)
Looking at the Assessment the right way up
Our Conspiratorial readers haven’t finished with the DIA document yet however. Abandoning their usual scepticism about the pronouncements of US intelligence agencies, they now treat the DIA as a fount of wisdom. Pouncing on para 3B – “The salafist (sic), the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” – they pass over its differentiation of opposition currents, roll them into one “extremist” mass, and whoop “there aren’t any moderate rebels in Syria”.
The problem here is that this part of the Report is nonsense. The Muslim Brotherhood had no presence in the armed opposition in 2012 – indeed it was late in joining the 2011 protests because it was in negotations with the Syrian government when they broke out. By 2012 it had acquired a role in the political opposition (a handful of members on the Syrian National Council); and it was involved in financing and smuggling arms supplies for the FSA and providing humanitarian aid – but a ”driving force” they have never been. When it comes to AQI the document provides its own refutation: it says “AQI conducted a number of operations in several Syrian cities under the name of Jaish al Nusra (sic) (Victorious army) one of its affiliates”. What one makes of an “intelligence” report that gets the name of Jabhat al-Nusra wrong, I don’t know, but its facts are right – AQI operated in Syria through Jabhat al Nusra, and as of August 2012 their activities consisted of a dozen bombs planted in Syrian cities. While Nusra began to appear as a component of the armed opposition later in the year, it was a long way from being a “driving force”. As for the “Salafists”, the document is at least getting warm here: Islamist and Salafist groups were began to emerge among the armed opposition in connection with the battle for Aleppo, although a clear Islamist pole did not appear in Aleppo until November, and this was neither entirely Salafist nor a majority among the armed opposition nor firmly committed to one political perspective.
Symptomatic Errors ?
What is interesting here is not so much the errors in the Report’s Syria intelligence (there are many more which I will discuss in a later post) but what they might signify. Presumably the authors of this report drew on the current intelligence evaluations available to them. If this is the sort of picture the US intelligence establishment had of Syria – that the armed opposition was dominated by a nexus of Salafists, Muslim brothers, and al-Qaeda – then it does much to explain US policy in this period, particularly its insistence on tightly monitoring arms flows, effectively starving the FSA moderates, and thereby turning its intelligence failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The real Godfathers of ISIS
Significantly, the Conspirators show no interest in certain parts of the document – the contents of paras 3A and 6C: “AQI trained in Syria and then infiltrated into Iraq …in Previous years a majority of AQI fighters entered Iraq primarily via the Syrian border.”
Now here we have a real smoking gun – acknowledgement that the formative years of ISIS were spent in regime-controlled Syria and that their subsequent florescence was overseen by Syrian intelligence. If we want to find find ISIS’s real Godfathers that is where we should be looking.